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I am pleased to share with our readers at Owen’s request this discussion of Cash on Delivery Aid, which appeared yesterday on his blog, Owen Abroad.

Linking Aid to Results: Why Are Some Development Workers Anxious?

By Owen Barder

The Center for Global Development is working on an idea which they call Cash on Delivery aid, in which donors make a binding commitment to developing country governments to provide aid according to the outputs that the government delivers. I think this is a good idea in principle, and hope that it can be tested to see whether and how it could work in practice.  The UK Conservative party have said in their Green Paper that if they are elected they will use Cash on Delivery to link aid to results.

Linking aid more closely to results is attractive from many different perspectives.  My own view is that linking aid directly to results will help to change the politics of aid for donors. Many of the most egregiously ineffective behaviours in aid are a direct result of donors’ (very proper) need to show to their taxpayers how money has been used.  Because traditional aid is not directly linked to results, donors end up focusing on inputs and micromanaging how aid is spent instead, with all the obvious consequences for transactions costs, poor alignment with developing countries systems and priorities and lack of harmonisation.  If we could link aid more directly to results, I think donors will be freed from many of the political pressures they currently face to deliver aid badly; and it would be politically easier to defend large increases in aid budgets.

Other people support Cash on Delivery aid for other reasons.  Ministers and officials of developing country governments see it as a way to access more money without the attendant costs of conditionality and foreign interference in domestic policy.  Some people see results-based aid as a way to restore the accountability of developing country governments to their own citizens, a social contract in which aid donors too often inadvertently interfere.  Especially in the US, some people believe that linking aid to results can create stronger incentives for developing country governments to deliver high quality public services.  Others support Cash on Delivery because it will improve the allocation of aid resources, since money flows to the places where services are being delivered and away from the places where money is being wasted. With all these complementary reasons there appears to be the possibility of a broad coalition of people in favour of moving ahead with testing whether Cash on Delivery aid can work in practice.

But there is one group of people for whom these ideas seem to be quite unsettling: development professionals in aid agencies and NGOs.

I recently wrote a response to a brief by CAFOD about some possible concerns about Cash on Delivery aid.  As I was doing so I realised that the questions asked by some development professionals reveal some discomfort about the possible impact of results-based aid on the quality and content of their jobs.  The “risks” identified in the CAFOD brief are not primarily about the consequences for development but rather risks to the privileged position enjoyed by professional staff in aid agencies and NGOs.

You can judge for yourself whether I am caricaturing the risks set out in the CAFOD paper, but they essentially amount to this: under Cash on Delivery aid money would flow to those governments best able to make use of it; governments would have freedom to decide which services to provide and to whom; governments would be able to decide how to use resources; governments would be accountable for their choices and the results; and progress would be measured according to internationally-agreed targets for impact rather than inputs and intermediate targets negotiated behind closed doors.

All these are necessary steps towards the internationally-agreed agenda for more effective aid set out in Paris and Accra, and necessary for the emergence of capable, accountable and responsive states.  Yet when a mechanism is proposed that tries to organise the aid system in a way that means these things could start to come about, these consequences are described as “risks”.

At the heart of these anxieties, it seems to me, is a question about what sectoral advisers in aid agencies are meant to be doing.  Take education advisers, for example (I am not picking on this group in particular, but it happens that the current proposals for Cash on Delivery aid are being developed looking specifically at education.)  Many people who work for aid agencies managing aid programmes for education are themselves education professionals, often former teachers.  Deep down (sometimes also on the surface) many of them want to be educators, not managers of aid programmes.  They want to be involved designing the curriculum, reforming the pedagogic approach, training the teachers, buying textbooks, or improving the education management information systems.  But it is the job of a community to educate its young, not foreigners.  As managers of aid programmes the staff of aid agencies should be ensuring that aid is delivered in ways that increase the accountability of central and local government to the nation’s citizens, keeping transactions costs to a minimum, delivering aid in ways which support the evolution of country systems and priorities, ensuring that the money is used for the purposes intended by the funders, and showing what results have been achieved.

In short, managers of aid programmes should be focusing on the effectiveness of aid, not education policy.  If governments need technical advice on education, they can procure that separately, and get advice from people who are more trained to build capacity and who are properly accountable for doing so, not get it as a bundled free offer-that-they-cannot-refuse from the people managing their aid.  If it works as intended, Cash on Delivery aid would change the relationship between donors and governments and would turn development professionals back into aid managers instead of would-be educators.  And it is this consequence which, I believe, some people find unsettling.

Many of my best friends are development professionals, and I know that everyone who works in development (well, nearly everyone) has the interests of the poor at heart. They often genuinely believe that they need to retain a degree of  influence to ensure that developing countries make the kind of progress towards development that they (and I) want to see.  There is quite a close parallel with the evolution of the attitudes of politicians, some of whom I also know well and have known since they were young, idealistic students.  Nearly all politicians enter politics for the noblest of motives: to contribute to the improvement of the society in which they live.  To a very large extent they retain those values through their political career. But over time there can be a gradual erosion of the distinction in their minds between their own interests and the service they give to others: some politicians gradually come to think that increasing their own power is the service of others, because they believe that they will exercise that power better than anyone else.

Politicians are, of course, at their most dangerous when they can no longer distinguish their own interests from the interests of the people they are meant to serve.  Similarly we should be concerned when we hear development professionals identifying themselves as speaking for the poor, and arguing that they must retain influence (i.e. power) – purchased by the relative wealth of their country – to promote strategies which the country would not pursue on its own.

To be fair, I also know some development advisers who are focused on improving the effectiveness of aid, who are rightly aghast when they are asked to double up by providing advice on how to manage an education or health system.   If I may be permitted a partisan aside, my observation is that DFID sectoral advisers tend to be more respectful of the need to promote effective country systems for policy-making and accountability than professionals from some other donor organisations (both NGOs and official aid agencies), and they are less likely to interfere in the country’s policies and strategies.

This may seem like an elaborate point to build from an innocuous and fairly sensible CAFOD brief about Cash on Delivery aid.  But the risks identified by CAFOD, and the questions that have been raised elsewhere, would apply to any system of results-based aid that makes substantive progress towards giving governments more freedom to choose how to deliver their development programmes and making them more accountable to their own citizens for their own success and failure.   I think these concerns actually reveal a deep-seated tension between the internationally-agreed agenda for improving aid effectiveness, and the views and interests of development professionals charged with designing and implementing those reforms in practice.

Update from Owen— PS: For the avoidance of doubt, I don't mean to imply that the author of the CAFOD brief, nor anyone else at CAFOD, is personally concerned about their own career or job description. I am simply reflecting on the nature of the objections that have been raised to Cash on Delivery aid.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.